I’ve been mining the box of loose photos that my husband Arthur and I accumulated over the course of our relationship. I found one from thirty years ago that was taken in Arthur’s grandmother’s house. In this photo Arthur is showing his cousin the book a friend of his wrote called White Trash Cooking. Arthur is dead, his grandmother is dead, the cookbook’s author is dead, that house doesn’t exist anymore…Looking at that photo made me think how as you age you start living with ghosts—not in the literal sense, but in the sense that people and places no longer exist on the physical plane but only in your mind.
Maybe this is one of the reasons older people start losing their grip on reality, it suddenly occurred to me. Most of the things and people that matter to them now exist only in their memories, and they prefer the reality of their memories to ‘actual’ reality in which they are alone.
This brought up for me another difficult aspect of grief, which is that you become the keeper-of-the-memories. Our point-of-view, our subjective reality, is shaped by our memories, and as long as we have at least one other person who was there when a particular memory was formed we can confirm that we are anchored to reality. We can confirm that memory is ‘real.’ But losing our partner-in-memory unmoors us. Was it real or did I just imagine it…who knows?
I posted this rumination on a forum I participate in and someone responded:
What you describe about older people “losing their grip on reality” actually has a name: Gerotranscendence. Not that actual dementia and/or loss of cognitive functions don’t also happen, but many practitioners in gerontology are strong advocates for this theory. Advocates for Gerotranscendence theory argue that many elderly people are misdiagnosed as suffering from dementia or some other condition when actually what they are experiencing is simply a natural, and logical, continuation of the aging process as they grow nearer to death.
The following is from a website about Gerotranscendence:
Swedish gerontologist Lars Tornstam developed his theory of “Gerotranscendence” over a period of two decades. The core of the theory suggests that normal human aging includes a range of vital and commonly overlooked components. In brief…
• There is an increased feeling of affinity with past generations and a decreased interest in superfluous social interaction.
• There is also often a feeling of cosmic awareness, and a redefinition of time, space, life and death.
• The individual becomes less self-occupied and at the same time more selective in the choice of social and other activities.
• The individual might also experience a decrease in interest in material things. Solitude becomes more attractive.
The website goes on to elaborate a stage of life that is post-adulthood: ‘elderhood.’
Discovering the fullness of the third age requires us to go deep, to push ourselves into unfamiliar terrain. Letting go of the desperate urge to worry over situations outside of one’s control, for example, opens the way to a form of joy that transcends the stunted adult definitions of success and failure that have, for so long, held us in their thrall. It is in the process of re-examining the lives we have lived, re-evaluating the choices we have made and re-considering the painful feelings that we’ve always run away from in the past that we eventually find our true selves. This is where the path into elderhood begins.
I hate admitting any connection with the prefix “gero-” but this really resonates with me. For me grief has brought me to the experience of all those bulleted points.
But reading this brought a question to mind: have we been misunderstanding the mental condition of many of our older people? Because this ‘third age’ of life has a different set of priorities that don’t match our money-driven achievement-oriented culture, have we misdiagnosed them as senile? Have we been losing the benefit of our elders’ wisdom?